‘Crisis of identity’ in priesthood reflects a wider social crisis

‘Crisis of identity’ in priesthood reflects a wider social crisis
Living well is a lifelong process, but we have to know what we are aiming at, writes David Quinn


In an excellent address to a conference on priestly formation in Maynooth at the weekend, Archbishop Eamon Martin made a passing reference to the volumes of work that have been written in the years after the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965 about the “crisis of identity” among priests. This idea about a “crisis of identity” caught my eye because the 1960s did not spark a crisis of identity among priests alone, but right across society and it’s not over yet.

There is a crisis of identity among men, for example. Once upon a time a man knew his basic job in life (if he married and had children) was to be a provider, and an authority figure and example to his children.

Now men have been told they are not really needed by women. Women can provide for themselves. Men are not even needed as fathers because women can easily raise their children alone, or with the help of other family members and friends if need be.


There is a crisis of identity among women. Women were expected in the past to be the primary carers. They were expected to mind the home and all in it.

Women are now told they really ought to be engaged in full-time work and rising to the top of their chosen profession. If they must have children, then day-care will mind those children during the working day. Children should be no impediment to reaching the top and competing with men.

But lots of women don’t want full-time, life-long careers. Some would rather stay at home with their children altogether and many more would like to mix home and work via part-time careers. These women are being told that they are somehow failing other women by not competing with men to get to the top. They feel devalued.

There is a crisis in parental identity. Are parents supposed to be authority figures or friends to their children, or a mixture of both?

There is a crisis of sexual identity at the most fundamental level. Once, men were men and women were women, but now we are told there are dozens of different ‘genders’ we can choose from and a growing number of people, including children, are being encouraged to choose a gender that is at variance with their physical body.

There is also a crisis of national identity. We used to be able to say that a nation consisted of people who shared the same language, had a shared history, a shared religion, a shared ethnicity etc. Now someone who arrived yesterday and does not speak the language, or share our history, religion or ethnicity is as much a national of their new home as someone born there.

The various crises of identity referred to above can, I am sure, be added to, but the overall point is that, if there are crisis of identity among priests, they are not alone. On the contrary.

The priest used to see himself in part as an authority figure, and people expected that of him. Much of the authoritarianism that has so badly damaged the reputation of the Church in Ireland stemmed from this. Authority need not lead to authoritarianism, of course, but far too often it does.

Parents, teachers, doctors, men, also presented themselves as authority figures and they often succumbed to the authoritarian temptation as well, which has helped spark the multiple identity crises of our time.

As has the rise of individualism. The traditional roles were pre-set. There was a certain way to be a man, a woman, a teacher, a parent, a wife, a husband, a child and so on.


The rise of individualism meant that we were now free to decide for ourselves what these various roles meant and how we wished to fulfil them, if we wanted to fulfil them at all. But many people didn’t (and don’t) have a clue how to use their freedom. In the case of religious life some convents collapsed completely in the wake of Vatican II because the members simply couldn’t come up with another way of living the congregational life. Individualism destroyed them.

Many men become fathers but don’t want to take on any of the real responsibilities of fatherhood preferring instead to be ‘free’. Women have abortions in preference to taking on the responsibilities (and loss of freedom) involved in motherhood.

These multiple crises of identity are not easily solved. Individualism destroys the idea of traditional roles and the destruction of authority (as distinct from authoritarianism) makes it harder to teach because parents and teachers, never mind priests and religious, find it harder to be listened to.

What about priestly identity? Clearly priests and religious can never again allow themselves to be authoritarian figures, but they should not let that deter them from trying to become shepherds, which is a kind of authority figure. The shepherd is a leader who protects his people and cares for his people. A priest who is reluctant to be a shepherd isn’t a priest all, except in the strict sacramental sense.

A priest has be a teacher, as Jesus was a teacher. And he must sometimes be willing to be a prophet as well, which is to say, he must be willing to take risks by telling his people things they might not want to hear about the ways in which they might be diverging from the teachings and ways of Jesus.

Archbishop Eamon rightly says in his talk that priestly formation is a lifelong process. Becoming a better and better husband, or father, or nurse or doctor or teacher or journalist is also a lifelong process. But we have to know what we are aiming at.

The priest is aiming at becoming a better and better shepherd to his people. Christians – lay, priest or religious –  aim to be more and more Christ-like. On these points, there should be no crisis of identity at all. If there is, then we cannot expect to attract new members, or new vocations.

David Quinn’s new book is How we Killed God and Other Tales of Modern Ireland. It is available from all good bookshops and from www.currach.ie